The Internet harbors a seemingly infinite expanse of false information. Each day rumors and “fake news” are passed off as facts. As a result, many people — either consciously or unconsciously — seek out evidence that supports their own views.

It is easy to see how inaccurate information from the web can play a damaging role in patients’ well-being. Now more than ever, healthcare professionals must be thoughtful when correcting false harmful misinformation for their patients.

“Patients with cancer using complementary medicine are more likely than patients not using it to refuse evidence-based therapies and have higher mortality,” wrote Raina M Merchant, MD, MSHP, from the Penn Medicine Center for Healthcare Innovation at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, co-author of a viewpoint article published in JAMA. “Researchers who produce objective science can no longer focus on simply disseminating the message. Now they must also defend that evidence from challenges to the validity and interpretation of their research.”

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There are a few reasons why false information continues to spread so quickly, as outlined by Dr Merchant. The first is that anyone can publish information about anything. In the pre-internet days, the public received information straight from government organizations or reporters on the evening news. These were trusted sources, and those messages were accepted as facts.

Because so much information is out in the world, right at our fingertips, patients can find nearly any published article or post that syncs with their own beliefs and claim it is true. If they see a statement they don’t agree with, then it is easy to label it as “fake news” and move along.

“The world has been alarmed at revelations of the politically motivated release of misinformation through social media channels and the reach that information has achieved,” Dr Merchant wrote. “Science and health are just as vulnerable to strategic manipulation.”’

Fighting back against inaccurate messages begins with one patient at the doctor’s office and must expand to the digital space. Dr Merchant and her co-author called for a campaign that engages those platforms patients use every day. Messages should not just inundate patients with hard statistics, they should have an element of narrative so that it is more memorable.

“Scientific information and misinformation are amplified through social media,” Dr Merchant concluded. “As those channels become vulnerable to scientific integrity, there are opportunities to develop countermeasures and specific strategies for vigilance and response.”


Merchant RM, Asch DA. Protecting the value of medical science in the age of social media and “fake news” [published online November 19, 2018]. JAMA. doi:10.1001/jama.2018.18416